Hunger means a lot more than an empty belly. It means a child doesn’t live up to his or her potential in school, and is more likely to think about suicide and have mental-health problems. It means a child is more likely to get sick and have life-long health problems. Because the child is unhealthy, health costs are higher. Many of those costs are borne by public programs such as Medicaid.

Poor families are the most likely to go hungry. Households headed by women, immigrants or people of color also experience more hunger. There’s more hunger in rural areas and in the Southern United States than any other region. Hunger is higher in homes with children under age 18 – not surprising because 20 percent of American children live in poverty.

Being hungry describes about one in every six Americans, or 42 million people, according to Feed America. Before the 2008 recession, just 4 percent of American households faced hunger. By 2010, it rose to 5.4 percent and currently, it’s 5.6 percent nationally. In Arkansas, the rate is significantly higher at more than 8 percent, according to USDA Economic Research Service data for 2012-2014.

Hunger means any member of a household reduces what he or she eats because the household does not have enough money or resources for food. Malnutrition means a person is sick or unhealthy because they don’t eat or cannot get a variety of foods and food groups, like protein, vegetables and grains. If malnutrition goes on long enough, it can cause death. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) uses the term “food insecurity” to mean a person is often forced to skip meals, eat less at meals, buy cheap non-nutritious food and/or feed their children but not themselves. Food insecurity affects about 13 percent of U.S. households.

When Americans have enough food they have lower health care costs, spend less time in the hospital and have better health overall. This seems obvious, but a new study proves just how much healthier they could be and how much money could be saved by treating malnutrition.

Providing adequate nutrition to hospital patients has been shown to save $3,800 per patient, on average, in a Chicago hospital study. The savings is because patients recover more quickly, have a shorter length of stay and hospital readmissions are reduced (30-day readmissions were reduced by 27%). The same study reported that about a third of people admitted to a hospital are either malnourished or at risk of malnutrition. Inadequate nutrition means patients have a higher risk of complications (infections, pressure ulcers, falls, etc.) The researchers said nutrition should be included in hospital quality improvement programs.

Reducing hunger

Hunger can be reduced in some surprising ways, according to an article in The Atlantic. Reducing the number of people behind bars and the rates of domestic violence both reduce hunger. More than a third of people released from prison can’t afford food. While a family member is in prison, income used for the family’s food is often reduced. A women who suffers domestic violence, along with her children, experiences more hunger.

Obviously, increased access to jobs and a living minimum wage would reduce poverty and provide more resources for food. However, eliminating poverty cannot be the whole focus to America’s hunger problem. Reducing poverty takes a lot of time and commitment of resources. It is not at all certain that a majority of political leaders are willing to tackle the problem.

In the meantime, hunger is immediate and cannot wait for a solution. The food charity End Hunger in America calls it a foundational problem.

Feeding a hungry family gives them a chance to bounce back to where they can feed themselves again. Most people using food assistance programs only use them for a short time. Usually they have hit a bad patch in their lives – job loss, divorce, a car accident, an illness. If they have food, they have a better chance of dealing with the crisis.

That’s why food programs from many public and private sources must be ongoing. Federal and state governments help reduce hunger through a variety of food programs – food stamps (now called SNAP or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), Women Infants and Children (WIC), school meal programs and summer feeding programs.

Half of all American children benefitted by SNAP programs at some point in their childhood. About 60 percent of food insecure households participate in at least one of these assistance programs. However, about 20 percent of food-insecure families with children do not qualify because they have too much income or the adults don’t meet employment requirements.

Hunger is a symptom of poverty and crisis situations. It is a source of stress, distraction and desperation. Hunger not only causes these problems but keeps them going. While we work on a cure for poverty and hunger, people are hungry. A wise person said, “If you know where your family’s next meal is coming from, you can have many problems – but if not, you only have only one.” Hunger cannot be put on hold until we find the solution to poverty, joblessness and violence.

Free food resources

If you or someone you know is hungry on a regular basis, these resources can help:

Volunteer to help

In many Arkansas communities, Americans are helping to feed their neighbors. Food charities, religious groups, food banks, soup kitchens, gleaning networks and other efforts great and small help get food to people who need it. If you are interested in helping, visit these websites for more information:

  • Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance supports a coordinated food distribution system via regional food banks
  • Arkansas Foodbank Network supports food banks statewide
  • Attend the Little Rock No Kid Hungry Dinner on Oct. 16 to help raise money for hungry children in Arkansas. Well-known chefs create a meal to remember at South on Main, 1304 S. Main, Little Rock. Register here.
  • End Hunger in America  provides tools to help your community address its hunger problem efficiently
  • Society of St. Andrew focuses on gleaning, food rescue and distribution to hungry people
  • Feeding America is a nationwide network of food banks
  • Ample Harvest works to eliminate food waste via network to donate excess food or garden produce to hungry people